A candid moment with Buddhadeb
The West Bengal CM tells Chaitanya Kalbag that the process of industrialisation needs to be speeded up else he would miss the bus.
Q: After being in power for more than a year after the 2006 elections, in which the Left Front was voted back to power with a huge majority, what are your areas of satisfaction?
A: We have to think of how to consolidate our success in the agricultural sector. We have achieved self-sufficiency in foodgrains, particularly in rice. A new area is emerging – horticulture. West Bengal's vegetable production was 11.6 million tonnes, the highest in the country last year. We have to consolidate our success and create more job opportunities.
After we were elected for the seventh time last year we set up an Agricultural Commission to improve our productivity. Though we produce the highest quantity of vegetables in the country, we lack a market mechanism. A lot of vegetables perish in the fields, so we have to see how to set up cold storage and cold chains.
68 per cent of agricultural land in West Bengal is irrigated and the government wanted to extend it to other areas. They were difficult areas bordering Jharkhand, and try water harvesting and other systems. India's agricultural growth rate had come down sharply but West Bengal maintained a 4% growth rate.
Moreover, ten years ago we had no idea we could send flowers from the Kolkata market to the Netherlands. We now export mangoes to the United States.
But now we have to set our eyes on industrialisation. When Jyotibabu charted our industrial policy in 1994 there were a lot of doubts. It took some years to convince foreigners and the corporate houses in our country to invest in Bengal. Now things are changing. Major corporate houses are taking interest in our state. The Birlas, the Tatas, Reliance and Videocon. I requested Videocon to go to North Bengal, a difficult area, to set up their first electronic SEZ. Japanese FDI is highest in West Bengal. The Americans are very active in the IT sector --- IBM has a big presence in the state. The Russians have come to Haldia to manufacture trucks --- the Urals --- for the Indian Army. The Germans have come; Italians are here in the leather industry. The French are taking interest in food processing.
So the industrial scenario is encouraging both in manufacturing and knowledge-based industries. We are stressing on the SME sector. We want job creation. We don't want jobless growth.
Four big steel plants are coming up simultaneously --- the Jindals are setting up a Rs 35,000-crore plant, the largest in India. They will create downstream industries like machine tools, engineering, etc.
But we need to speed up the process of industrialisation because new proposals are coming. We cannot just wait. If I miss the trend, I will miss the bus. Because (investors) cannot wait for West Bengal for months together. They will just move to another state. There is keen competition between states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal. Therefore, time is an important factor.
Moreover, the young generation is waiting for us. We have a a three-fourths majority in the Assembly, but I have to perform. Now we have 460 colleges, 68 engineering colleges, 18 universities. The boys and girls coming out of these institutions need jobs. Earlier, people who earned engineering degrees had to wait for two or three years for jobs. Now companies are recruiting them from from campuses. We cannot kill time.
Q: Isn't the speed at which you are moving creating apprehension among the people?
A: What we learnt from Nandigram is that we should move fast, but very cautiously. We have to take people into confidence. We failed to reach out to the masses in Nandigram. We failed to explain what it was all about, what the chemical hub was, what benefits they would get. The opposition successfully misled the people.
But the fact remains that the chemical hub is absolutely esstial for the state. It will have to come up around Haldia. If I fail, it will go to Gujarat.
West Bengal beat seven other states to win the huge chemical hub project, whose anchor investor is Indian Oil Corporation. The project would spawn downstream industries like polymers and rubber.
Q: Why has Singur become such an emotive issue?
A: When we fought for the rights of the farmers, it was anti-feudal, it was against the zamindars, the landlords. The consensus among all Left-mind people was that the system should be abolished. But now it is a new situation. Now we are moving from agriculture to industry. We successfully implemented land reform: 84 per cent of our agricultural land belongs to poor and marginal farmers. But when we try to move from agriculture to industry, there seems to be problems. For a section of the Left parties and Left-minded intellectuals this is something new.
The car project in Singur will create 4,000 jobs. It will change the entire economy of that area. It will change the quality of life in that area. Moreover, there would also be ancillary units and this would attract other automobile manufacturers to come to the state. Therefore, Singur is very important for us.
Q: But what is the way forward on the Singur issue?
A: I think Singur is now a closed chapter. They have got the message that I just cannot roll back the project. But Nandigram was a mistake, not only administrative but also political.
But we have to go forward with industrialisation. Haldia was a fisherman's village 30 years ago, like Nandigram. Now it is an industrial city. There are more than 106 factories there. On the other side of the Haldi river is Nandigram. We thought we would build a bridge over the river and create another Haldia. All the panchayats in Nandigram are run by the CPM and the CPI. But we went wrong there. I could find scapegoats but I thought this is my responsibility. Before we could reach the masses the opposition had successful misled the people. This is not the real picture of West Bengal, this is an exception. But we have learnt our lessons. We have to move very cautiously. First we have to take people into confidence, at the administrative level, the political level, and then go ahead.
Q: But a dialogue with Opposition is a must to resolve the Singur issue…
A: The opposition in our state is very difficult to deal with. Look at Gujarat, look at Maharashtra, even Tamil Nadu. Political parties have different views, ideologies. But when a project comes up there is total consensus. Here they have become a champion of farmers' interests. When we organised the farmers' struggle, Congress was on the other side of the barricade. Now they are opposing this.
I am trying again and again to talk to the opposition. I have written at least six letters to Mamata Banerjee, to discuss and try a dialogue. I have not written six letters to any of my friends, boy or girlfriends, in my college days. But Banerjee has not responded.